As a third Nigerian state moves towards officially implementing strict Koranic laws, the country's leading Christian organization has threatened to mount a legal challenge, claiming that Koranic law is unconstitutional and jeopardizes the unity of the country.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella body for the country's Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, said it had written to the Nigerian attorney general asking him to challenge the imposition, six weeks ago, of shari'a law in Zamfara state, northern Nigeria. (Shari'a is the sacred law of Islam, embracing all aspects of a Muslim's life.)

Since the decision by Zamfara state, two more northern Nigerian states, Kano and Sokoto, which are bigger and more influential than Zamfara, have taken steps to adopt Islamic law. In Sokoto, the authorities last week announced a ban on alcohol and prostitution while Kano, which has a population of about five million, announced the full enforcement of shari'a.

In a separate move, the southern state of Rivers, which has seen street protests against the Islamist moves, has threatened to declare itself a Christian state in protest.

CAN's general secretary, Charles Obasola (C.O.) Williams, said in Lagos: "There seems to be a sinister motive to this shari'a decision. We have written to the attorney general calling on him to take action against Zamfara. If he does not, we will consider taking our own legal action."

You cannot have two systems of law—common law [the legal system introduced in Nigeria by Britain] and shari'a. Many states in the north are now talking about shari'a but this runs counter to the well-integrated nature of many parts of the country where there is intermarriage and peaceful cohabitation. We know shari'a will work against Christians.

"Nigeria, which, with more than 100 million people is Africa's most populous country, combines traditional religions with Christianity and Islam. There is no reliable estimate of which religion dominates nationally but Muslims are in a big majority in the north, there are mainly Christians in the east and the southwest is mixed.

The moves to introduce Islamic law come six months into the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military leader who was elected civilian head of state earlier this year. The greatest challenge emerging for him is maintaining the unity of Nigeria.

Since he took office at the end of May, ethnic tension has mounted between several of the country's tribes, which number more than 200, and more than 1200 people have reportedly died in ethnic clashes. Most of these have been unrelated to religion but have created an atmosphere of instability.

Connected to this tension is the long-established vying for influence between the economically powerful southwest and the north, which since colonial times has dominated military and civilian administrations.

The fact that President Obasanjo is a Baptist from the southwest—is seen by hard-line northern elements as a double insult. The move to introduce shari'a in Zamfara has reportedly been very popular on the ground and the state's Muslim leaders are now claiming to preside over the most law-abiding area of the country. As yet, Zamfara's community courts are not known to have recommended any controversial punishments, such as the cutting of hands for thieves.Apart from calling for legal action against the imposition of shari'a, CAN also renewed its demand that Nigeria withdraw from the Organization of Islamic Conference (IOC), a Saudi Arabia-based group of 52 countries, which it joined under military rule.''The IOC membership is not acceptable. It is as if I declared one day that Nigeria as a country was to join the WCC [World Council of Churches],'' said Williams.

Some observers see the shari'a trend as a political move, aimed at asserting northern authority amid fears that President Obasanjo is favoring the south-west.The Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba, said: ''Shari'a has always been in effect in the north of the country. It has co-existed with common law without incident. What is different now is that, for the first time, it is being used as a political tool.''

Copyright © 1999 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

See our related article yesterday at, "Nigeria On the Brink of Religious War | Northern states adopt Islamic law, increasing Christian-Muslim tensions"

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